Conversion


Luke 19:1-10

Text Comment

v.1

Apparently Jesus had not intended to stay in Jericho, he was passing through. Events would change his plans! A remark like this reminds us how completely the Lord lived a human life. As with any man, events altered his plans.

v.2

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector, apparently the head of a tax department or area, so was correspondingly more wealthy than even an ordinary tax collector might be. Wealthy and undoubtedly unpopular, as we will soon learn. The ostracism that came with his job and with the wealth that he accumulated from the pockets of his fellow citizens meant that this man would be very unlikely to risk the ridicule and open contempt of a crowd unless he were being driven by some powerful urge, a sense of great need to see Jesus. Much is left unsaid, of course, and we can only guess, but we may assume that the Holy Spirit had been at work in the heart of Zacchaeus to prepare him for this moment. His conscience apparently had become a burden to him, as may be suggested by the fact that as soon as his life was changed he immediately thought to restore what he had extracted by fraud. What he had heard of Jesus already — of what Jesus had said and what he had done — had already begun a good work in him. [Caird, 207-208]

v.5

In the Gospels when Jesus says that he “must” do something, it means that the thing he intends to do is part of his messianic calling, his mission in the world. He must go through Samaria he told his disciples at the opening of John 4, and there too he met someone to whom he brought salvation. He had to go through Samaria on that occasion and he had to go to Zacchaeus’ house this day. Just as he knew the past history of the woman he met at the well in Samaria so he knew the name of the man who was up in the tree looking to see him as he passed by.

v.7

Earlier a prostitute was described as a “sinner,” here a tax collector. In either case Jesus was criticized for associating with such a person.

v.8

The “and” that begins v. 8 should really be “but.” [Morris, 289] Zacchaeus, like the sinful woman in Luke 7, is set over against the grumblers.

His promise of a four-fold restitution was more than the law required, which was the original amount taken and an additional fifth. [Lev. 6:5; Num. 5:7] Zacchaeus was choosing to more than the minimum.

v.9

As one commentator beautifully describes the scene:

“By bursting through the barrier of religious prejudice that isolated him, Jesus awakened to vibrant life impulses that had long lain dormant, and revealed to [Zacchaeus] the man he was capable of becoming. In a dramatic and comprehensive demonstration of gratitude, he broke with the past, admitting his fraudulent practices, undertaking restitution far beyond what the Law required…and forsaking even the legitimate profits of his profession — a ‘sinner’ treading without hesitation the path of renunciation from which the respectable ruler [in chapter 18] had been too easily deterred. In his former degradation his family had been involved; but now, in the person of Jesus, the messianic salvation had come to him and to his household…” [Caird, 208]

Zacchaeus’ Jesus says, is a true son of Abraham — of course every Jew saw himself as a son of Abraham – but Zacchaeus had responded as Abraham had responded to God in faith and obedience. The final sentence recalls those statements earlier in the Gospel that, in context, mean not that Zacchaeus was lost and the other Jews in the scene were not; but that Zacchaeus had come to realize that he was lost, while the crowd that had been grumbling, grumbled against Zacchaeus precisely because they assumed they were so much better than he, the attitude of someone who is lost but doesn’t know it. The problem with the rich ruler had been that he didn’t know himself lost and so didn’t realize his great need of Jesus.

The term of art for what happened to Zacchaeus is “conversion.” You do not find the word “conversion” in this account, but what we understand conversion to be is very much the subject of these ten verses. It is a word that means, simply enough, “change,” or “turning.” “Conversion” entered the vocabulary of the English speaking Christian world through its employment in the translation of several key texts in the King James Version of the Bible. David, in Psalm 51, his prayer of penitence, said to God, “…then shall sinners be converted unto thee.” In Acts 15:3 Paul and Barnabas are reported to have told the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about “the conversion of the Gentiles” in Antioch.

Other English words might have been used to convey the same idea, but it was “conversion” that stuck. What we mean by the term is that spiritual and moral change, that profound personal turning away from a life of sin and unbelief and turning to Christ for salvation. It is the outward, visible result of what the Bible calls the new birth. Or, as a Puritan would have put it, “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the [Holy] Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.” [Goodwin in Packer, Quest for Godliness, 295]

Now, to be sure, not all conversions are as sudden and dramatic as was the conversion of Zacchaeus. In fact, few of them are so sudden and dramatic. Think of Peter, James, and John, for example, who more than any others besides Jesus himself feature in the narrative of the gospels. For all we know those men may have been believers from their infancy. They may have belonged to that company of faithful Jews to which Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, and Simeon and Anna belonged. They appear in the Gospels first as disciples of John the Baptist. The transfer of their loyalty to Jesus was a natural step for these believing men.

But for some others then and now conversion can be sudden, unexpected, and dramatic, as it was in the case of Zacchaeus. In such cases God shows us how it is that everyone becomes a Christian, by the sovereign, powerful working of the Spirit of God. That explains why there have always been such sudden, dramatic conversions. They are a picture of how everyone is saved! A man or a woman who was not a Christian and had no intention of becoming one, suddenly finds himself or herself a follower of Jesus and hardly knows how that happened. Thomas Goodwin, the great Puritan theologian of the 17th century, called such dramatic and sudden conversions “election conversions” because it is as if we can see God’s choice of a person take place before our very eyes. [Packer, Quest for Godliness, 296]

Such was the conversion of Zacchaeus. Such was, as well, the conversion of the Apostle Paul, whose conversion is the model conversion in the New Testament. The account of it is given four separate times, three in Acts and one in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and more space is devoted to its narration those four times than is devoted to the narrative of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Savior can be our example in many things, but not in conversion! Paul is the great exemplar of conversion in the New Testament precisely because his conversion, being as sudden, unexpected, and dramatic as it was, and Christ actually calling Paul to himself as he did on the Damascus Road, revealed nature of conversion, however it happens, whenever it happens. A divine summons, a human being unable to do anything but respond in obedience, an utterly changed life: that is every Christian’s conversion, whenever and however it happened.

And throughout the history of the Christian church there have been many other such remarkable conversions, sudden transformations of life, sudden and unexpected revolutions in belief, in conviction, and in behavior through an encounter with Jesus Christ. Augustine in Milan in 386; Luther in Germany in the early 1500s; John Bunyan in England and Blaise Pascal in France in the 1600s; John Newton and John Wesley in the 1700s; Charles Spurgeon in the 1800s; C.S. Lewis and Charles Colson in the 20th century; and Rosaria Butterfield, of whom I told you last Sunday, in the 21st. Each of these conversions was much more like Zacchaeus’ than like mine. Each of these people woke up that fateful day unbelievers and went to bed that same night Christians, fully aware that God himself had shown himself to them and done something to them. A great change had taken place: a change of heart and a change of life. For each of them, conversion, the great change meant a very different life after than what they had lived before.

Conversion is the one “standing miracle” in the historical experience of the church: a supernatural act without a natural explanation. And in nothing does the Lord reveal his genius more than in the astonishing variety of ways by which he calls sinners to himself and effects this radical change in their hearts and their lives. He called Zacchaeus while he sat in a tree; he called Paul from heaven as that member of what might be likened to the Jewish gestapo walked along the highway to Damascus; he called Augustine in the garden of a villa in Milan; he called Luther in his study; John Wesley in the balcony of a London Moravian church; John Newton when he was lashed to the wheel of a ship in a great storm at sea; the young Charles Spurgeon in an almost empty Primitive Methodist church into which the sixteen year old had wandered one snowy Sunday morning; C.S. Lewis on a bus; and Charles Colson in the front seat of his car. Some were reading the Bible, some were listening to it read; some were reading another book; some were listening to a preacher; some were remembering what they had been taught years ago. But for all of them it was the voice of Jesus Christ himself as much as if it had been Jesus calling them down from that tree that sunny day in Jericho. Some were in the midst of crises in their lives, others were not; some hearts were cultivated by the active witness of other Christians, others were converted with virtually no involvement by others. Some were converted when they were young; others when they were old, some very old.  There is a gravestone in a cemetery in Cambridge, England that reads: “Here lies an old man who lived but seven years.”

But, in every case, there was a before and an after and a great change in between. A hater of God became a lover of God. A man comfortable with himself became a man well aware of how far from God he was. An indifference to salvation became a great concern to find it. And in every case it was a change that such people had not planned, not even considered, never even imagined before it became the most necessary thing in their life. That is conversion and it is the same today when it happens as it happened in Zacchaeus’ case.

So what is it about conversion that is revealed in this striking example of the phenomenon?

  1. First, conversion is a divine act, making possible what is impossible for human beings in and of themselves.

The account of Zacchaeus is the counterpoint to the account of the rich ruler in chapter 18. That’s the point of the statement in v. 2, “that he was rich.” In the earlier case, remember, the Lord had said that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. In Zacchaeus’ case, who was a rich man, we are given to see a camel going through the needle’s eye. As Jesus had said in the former case, what is impossible with man is possible with God.

That is what makes conversion so remarkable and so glorious. Particularly Zacchaeus’ kind of conversion. It is the very hand of God visible in human life. People would never have achieved this breakthrough by themselves. They would never have wanted to.

Zacchaeus was a crook. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a man who had for a long time made his living on the backs of people whom he made miserable by his greed. He was the commissioner of taxes in Jericho, which city, lying on a main road between the Trans-Jordan and Jerusalem was a customs and tax collection point. It was prime real estate for a tax farmer, who owed a certain amount to the Roman government but was free to keep everything he collected above and beyond what he had promised to the state. If you wanted to do business in or through Jericho you had to grease Zacchaeus’ palms. In v. 8, when he says, “if I have defrauded anyone…” he doesn’t mean that it may be that he hadn’t actually defrauded anyone. He means, “to all those I have defrauded, I will restore four-fold.” Zacchaeus was a scrooge and then, all of a sudden, he was not; he was the furthest thing from a scrooge! He couldn’t himself explain what had happened to him but how he had so comfortably lived for years was now a shame and embarrassment to him and what mattered to him was that he put right the wrongs he had done. What had happened to this man? Well, Jesus had happened to him. He had seen the truth about himself and about God and his heart had opened to that truth because Jesus Christ had spoken to him.

Paul was on his way to Damascus to do what he could to destroy the Christian church. He had already imprisoned Christians and had participated in the mob-lynching of one of the infant church’s most attractive leaders. And then, suddenly, he found himself a Christian and not a Christian only but a champion of Jesus Christ. Had you asked Paul or anyone else a day before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, whether Paul might himself become a Christian someday they would have laughed in your face. So unlikely was it that the Christians themselves for some time suspected that Paul’s new found faith was some kind of trick, a means of infiltrating their ranks. But God had changed that man root and branch.

And this is what is true of all conversion, however and whenever it happens, even when it happens in infancy: it is utterly a work of divine power and grace, something impossible for a human being to achieve by his own efforts. Even those of us who have been Christians as long as we can remember, from infancy even, can look at ourselves and tell very easily how naturally and comfortably we would have lived an unbeliever’s life had Jesus Christ not spoken to us and commanded us to come down and follow him. We wouldn’t have changed; we wouldn’t have wanted to change.

This is one reason why unbelievers do not like this doctrine of Christian conversion, this idea that people are changed root and branch and by the power of God. Obviously the implication of conversion is that the person in himself or herself is not nearly good enough and that his or her situation is hopeless apart from the intervention of God.  We see that so clearly in Zacchaeus’ case, but it is just as true in the case of every one of you, though some of you were converted, I know, much as Zacchaeus was!

  1. Second, in Zacchaeus’ “election conversion” we learn of the personal summons that brings conversion to pass in someone’s life.

Zacchaeus was curious that day. We wonder why.Perhaps he was hopeful that something would happen to assuage his restless conscience. He wanted a look at the man everyone was talking about and whose presence had perhaps sparked some hope in his own mind. He certainly had no intention, when he got out of bed that morning, that he would end the day giving much of his money away!

Zacchaeus was curious and perhaps he was troubled. But it was Christ’s call and summons that made him a new man. It was Christ’s acceptance of him, his willingness to come and dine at his house — which no Jew of his acquaintance was likely ever to do — and not simply his willingness, but virtually his demand that Zacchaeus take him to his home that opened the man’s heart and changed the man’s life. As the Lord sums up what happened in the final verse, Zacchaeus was saved because the Lord sought him out for salvation.

And in that too every conversion is the same. It is always that personal encounter with Jesus Christ, that summons to believe, that answer given by the human heart. The other Jews in Jericho that day were not saved. They were still in the grip of their own pride and self-satisfaction. Looking down their noses at Zacchaeus they could not see Jesus as the tax collector did from his tree! Nor did the Lord summon them to take him to their homes. Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, would be saved, as we saw last time, but then he also had a personal encounter with Jesus and Jesus spoke directly to him as well.

Someone can be very knowledgeable of the Bible, can know the Christian message backwards and forwards and still never have that encounter with Jesus that is the sine qua non of true conversion. I’ve told you before the conversion story of Eta Linnemann. She was a New Testament scholar in the German university, indeed the first woman to reach the rank of professor in biblical studies in German history. Don’t minimize the importance of that. German divinity professors for the previous 150 years have been some of the most influential thinkers in the modern west! When I was a graduate student in Scotland, her name was a name to reckon with in New Testament scholarship. She had published several learned works on the study of the Gospels. But she did not know Jesus Christ. She was a professional student of the Bible but she had never met the Savior himself and her life wasn’t very happy. She was a lonely woman. She drank too much. Her conscience perhaps was troubling her. Maybe hers were the sort of problems that were troubling Zacchaeus that day. And then, one day, she met the Savior and everything changed. As she told the story,

“Finally God spoke to my heart by means of a Christian brother’s words. By God’s grace and love I entrusted my life to Jesus.”

Zacchaeus and Paul would have known exactly what Professor Linnemann was talking about because the very same thing had happened to them that happened to her! The Lord had spoken to her as he spoke to Zacchaeus that day in Jericho. And there could be no going back after that.  She repudiated the books by which she had defrauded her reading public and turned her life to the teaching of the Bible as someone who knows it to be the Word of God.

  1. And that leads us to the third and last thing we learn about conversion from the account of Zacchaeus’: it is a change that must and will transform the life, the behavior.

The great change in Zacchaeus occurred down deep, in the very structure of his personality and character, in his heart as the Bible would say. There where his life was concentrated, where his daily life originated, his thoughts, words, and deeds, he was a new man. It was there, where his likes and dislikes, his sense of himself, his view of right and wrong originated, where the transformation had taken place. No one, Zacchaeus included, could see that divine work within him. But out of the heart flow the issues of life, so everyone very soon could see the difference conversion made in the man’s life. Make the tree good, Jesus once said, and the fruit will become good as well.

Here was a man who had long loved money suddenly giving huge amounts of it away. Here was a man who had extorted money from many with nary a pang of conscience now conscience-stricken and determined to make right what he could. And not at some later time, but right now! He used the present tense to make his promises in v. 8: “I give half of my possessions to the poor…” and “I restore what I have defrauded.” And not as little as he could to satisfy the requirements of the Law but much more than the Law actually required of him. Zacchaeus was able to look his guilt in the face because, for the first time, he knew he could be forgiven. No one can ever say, honestly and mean it, “I am lost,” until he knows that “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”

Zacchaeus was a new man and his new behavior was going to rock Jericho back on its heels. Almost certainly that’s why we know his name because for years thereafter he was a part of the Christian community living a distinctively Christian life as the tax collector in Jericho.  A tax commissioner giving half of his money to the poor and restoring four-fold all of his extortions? They had never seen anything like this! People just don’t do that. But Christian converts do. A great many have done just that sort of thing. When a man who had spent his life avidly accumulating money begins to give it away; when an extortioner begins to make restitution because he wants to and rejoices to, we can believe that “the old things have passed away and that all things have become new.”

You see, no one had spoken to Zacchaeus about his money and his ill-gotten gains. The Lord didn’t command him to give his money to the poor and to make generous restitution to those he had taken more tax from than he should have. It was truth and love now operating in his heart that compelled him to do such radical things. No one told Rosaria Butterfield that her lesbian relationship would have to go or that her so carefully constructed philosophy of life which she had been teaching for years at Syracuse University would have to be abandoned. She realized that intuitively when she met Jesus Christ and answered his summons, as she found herself having to do.

As Eta Linnemann put it after her conversion:

“I still remember the delicious joy I felt when for the first time black was once more black and white was once more white; the two ceased to pool together as an indistinguishable gray.”

That is what Zacchaeus experienced as well. He had found the truth and the truth had set him free to live a new life, utterly different from the life he had lived, and so much better. Better for him and better for Jericho!

Now think about all of this in regard to yourselves. Do you recognize Zacchaeus in yourself? The question is not whether we had an experience very like his; but whether we are ourselves very like what he came to be? Do we find our hearts saying “Yes” to what happened to him? Do we understand what happened to him? Do we find a true agreement within our hearts with his extravagant repentance and wish for the same measure of repentance for ourselves? Do we know why he gave all that money away and why he never later regretted parting with a single penny of it? Do we feel as he did that the love of Christ constrains us? Do we long to see the same thing happen to many other people?

Questions like these reveal both our understanding of conversion and the real state of our mind and heart — whether we are among those whom Jesus came to save.

Is there a thrill in your soul that what happened to Zacchaeus happened to you as well? As one old writer put it, “We are saved in the nick of conversion or we are not saved at all.” Do you not think that the conversion of a human life is the most wonderful thing that ever happens in the world?

And is it a delight to you that conversion is only the beginning of that new life Christ grants to those who seek him. If you love what happened to Zacchaeus then you certainly would want him to go on in this new spirit and this new commitment to a life of honesty, humility, and love. You can see the goodness of it so clearly here. Do you not want that for yourself and for your loved ones more and more? Of course you do!

And if you should be one who has never been changed in this way, one who does not see himself in Zacchaeus, one who has never received the Lord Jesus joyfully into your home and your life, then do what he did. Go looking for Jesus, climb a tree if you must, whatever that may mean in your life, but don’t stop until you have caught a sight of him. The Lord will not turn away those who are truly seeking him. Centuries before Zacchaeus was born the prophet Isaiah called upon everyone to do what Zacchaeus had done:

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
Call upon him while he is near.
Let the wicked man forsake his way
And the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him,
And to our God, for he will freely pardon.